Kristen Howerton on Doubting Parents with Doubting Kids: How Do We Answer Their Questions?

doubt

Article by contributing writer, Kristen Howerton. (Meet contributing writers here.)

Give yourself permission to not need to figure it all out.

My faith journey has been a long and winding road. You’ve probably heard it before: parents in the ministry, conservative upbringing, youthful devotion, youthful rebellion. Then, a return to faith as a young adult followed by a return to disillusionment as a young adult.

My husband, Mark, used to be a full-time pastor. Today he works elsewhere, and we’ve left the church our family attended for 15 years. We have yet to find another church home. Our regular church attendance has decreased to once or twice a month as we try new communities.

Ten years ago, this current deconstructed religious life would have pummeled me with guilt. But the last decade has sent me through a tunnel of spiritual doubt during which I’ve questioned everything I learned growing up. And I’ve realized that a lot of those questions don’t have very satisfactory answers. The question of Where do we go next Sunday morning? isn’t nearly as important as What do I believe at all anymore?

Today I’m mostly at peace, though. If I’ve reached any kind of grown-up maturity in my faith, it’s reflected in the fact that I worry less about the lack of answers to my questions. I’ve given myself permission to not need to figure it all out.

Dealing with doubt as a parent

But kids aren’t quite so comfortable with uncertainty. How do you deal with doubt as a parent? We’ve experienced this over the last few months as our oldest has begun encountering, and asking, a lot of questions. It started with a local VBS with a strong evangelistic focus. After several days of emphasis about the importance of “accepting Jesus into his heart,” he came home wondering if he was really a Christian.

Another time he went to a youth group event at a nearby megachurch, where they talked about the importance of prayer. The speaker told the kids how Christians’ thoughts should always be on God and how we should pray constantly. Look, he’s 10 years old. He thinks a lot about Minecraft and skateboarding. “I don’t think about God all the time,” he told us that night. “Maybe I’m not really a Christian.” Oof.

How did we respond? How do we, as doubters, deal with our kids’ questions about faith?

We identify with him. Rather than freaking out about his religious confusion, we acknowledge that questioning is part of being human. I believe Mark’s response to our son’s concerns about his thought life was, literally, “That’s okay, dude. We’re just like you.” This can be tough—part of me wants to maintain my authority-figure status by providing pat answers to all his questions. But that would be dishonest. I don’t have those answers. They need to know that everyone doubts, including moms and dads.

We acknowledge mystery. Even if I could answer every one of my kids’ religious questions, I’m not sure I would. Faith is not a mathematical formula. It’s not some kind of logical, if-A-then-B theorem. If it were, we wouldn’t be asked to have faith. Faith is only necessary when certainty is impossible. I worry that if I make my kids think there’s an answer to everything, the moment they encounter an unanswerable question their faith will crumble altogether. In a religious world of apologetics and evangelistic talking points, I’d rather raise kids who are comfortable with uncertainty.

We value communication. I want my kids to feel free to talk to me about anything. If someday they wonder whether God exists, I want them to tell me about it. If a teacher at VBS says something that makes them feel bad about themselves—which happens way too often—I want them to trust me with those feelings. This help them view me as a safe place, but it also helps them see that asking questions isn’t inherently dangerous.

We love unconditionally. I’m not the same person I was as a kid, and my kids’ beliefs will change over time, too. We will differ on politics. We will differ on theology. But hopefully Mark and I are raising our kids to understand that our relationship always comes before our beliefs. We’re trying to build an environment where each of us can speak the truth without fear or judgment.

We focus on them. I’m full of insecurities, but I need to understand that my children’s questions aren’t always about me. It’s not always a reflection on my parenting or an indictment of my failures. Rather than worrying how their Sunday school teachers might react or the worried looks their grandparents might give us, I need to keep the focus on my kids. It’s their faith, not mine. As my friend Rachel Held Evans’ father once wrote, the road for doubters “may be dangerously rocky and uncertain. Don’t make them travel it alone.”

Doubt can be a painful struggle for anyone, regardless of their age. When my kids go through this struggle—and they will—you can bet I’ll be walking right along with them. It’s a journey we’ll be making together, because it’s a journey I’m still on myself.

What about you? How do you deal with your children’s hard questions about faith?

Photo credit: Ed Garcia

Originally Published 8/6/2015

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